Northanger Abbey: Volume I, Chapters 1 - 3

To Austen-L

October 8, 1997

Re: NA, Chs 1-3: Acid Gaiety, The Debonair Hero and Heroine's Story

We have in effect been debating the mood of the book. Is it disillusioned? Does it take the view that Bath as a place is filled mostly with empty meaningless activities, vain people spouting cant at one another, and that this is something Catherine is finally to understand when her naivete vanishes before her coming experiences of mostly dull and hypocritical people and a real Abbey? Or is it hopeful, cheerful, gay? Are we to take Catherine's view, which, as Henry Tilney remarks, is a pure product of "fresh feelings of every sort," and by implication a generous and elastic spirit and affectionate heart willing to see what is good (we might see in Jane Bennet who insists on interpreting the world with candour someone who while under no illusions resolves to see things from the point of view of others, and can make sympathetic interpretations which are accurate)?

Well I submit it's both. In tone this novel is as complex as the other five. My view is it is not a piece of juvenilia, but was after the first draft, perhaps written as a small piece around the time of the first version of First Impressions (which would explain the sameness of outlook), it was revised before sending it to the publisher in 1803, and then again after 1809 when it was retrieved. At this point the heroine's name changed from Susan to Catherine, and it was again put away, this time for good, in 1816. That a good deal of it is mature would explain the brilliance of the pace, the deftness, the realistic dialogue, none of which are to be found so consistently in the extant S&S which I am not alone in regarding as the earliest mature text of Austen's that we have.

But if the tone is as complex, it is not mixed or blended in the same way. I would characterize P&P as acid gaiety but would suggest this tone is continuous from narrator into characters and back again. In the case of NA the disillusionment, the bleakness, the occasional cynicisms and what I should call justified distrust of people's outward posings and dislike of their coldness, selfishness, baseness and other basic qualties which lie just beneath the surface of all the civilities is voiced again and again by the narrator, very occasionally reinforced by Henry Tilney. Thus far too the narrator provides the framework for the text as satire and when she is predominant, Catherine loses reality, becomes more of a puppet (later the narrator will very effectively voice of tone of the gothic which will slow down time and create a parody of dread which is not so different from the real thing as to prevent our at once enjoying and laughing at it).

Separate from the narrator is Catherine who is hope and cheer and humility itself. Who is right? Neither. As with MP both points of view in a dialogue are to be taken into account, though what is debated in MP is different from what is debated here. This is the simpler book which is why people think it is based on an early manuscript. It contains (I have always thought) elements of the real young Jane Austen's first response to Bath in the early 1790's.

We have also been discussing the character of Henry Tilney. The same problem that makes an interpretation of Catherine as a character exists for Henry: he is both a character in a satiric or comic novel and a device in a novelistic satire. When the character is deftly slid into a device, he becomes a mouthpiece for the satirist teaching the naif. This is the way of Candide, of Goldsmith's Citizen of the World, only in the former occasion Pangloss has it all wrong too. As a voice of common sense, disillusion and figure of integrity he gets it right.

But he is also the hero in a romance, and as such my view is his note is wit, gaiety, and my word for him is debonair. The word comes from the "old French" and means "of good disposition" combined with pleasant manners, unembarrassed, apparently carefree, cheerful; in French he has "savoir faire" or to use a modern word, panache combined with tact. I hear always a tone of gentle affection from the character playing over those portions of the text in which Henry is also a teacher and guide for the naif. "Dear Miss Morland," as Helen talked of this line on another list, he appeals to her heart and never brings up things painful to her once he realizes they are pain. This tone of gentle affection grows stronger as he falls in love.

As a character too he is no more idealized or sentimentalized than any other of Austen's characters. He is often a male chauvinist, but to Catherine that makes him all the more commanding, if at the same time (and very like Fanny Price _vis-a-vis_ Henry once Henry starts to woo her), she will consistently correct any antifeminism he preaches at her, or at least be put off by it, as she is in the early dialogue in Chapter 3 where he so deliciously sends up Mrs Allen and makes mince-meat of the idea that women are especially good at letter-writing. The last can be seen as eliminating a feminine stereotype which limits women as much as a criticism of what women can do. He says both sexes have equal capacities when it comes to taste--by which is also in this period meant the imagination.

These two uses of Henry (for me at least) work wonderfully.

The last comment I'd like to make comes from reading two books which discuss the meaning of the word "heroine" for this period. We have been assuming that by "heroine" the satiric narrator refers us mostly to the heroine of gothic romances; I added the idea of the heroine of sentimental romances, but since the gothic and sentimental occur most often together in the same books (Emmeline and Mysteries of Udolpho are equally sentimental and gothic), it doesn't change our interpretation of what myth Austen seeks to explode very much. Nancy Miller and Rachel Brownstein suggest that the word heroine refers to a larger plot pattern which Austen does follow while she subverts and parodies it--the tradition of the courtship novel, the novel whose heroine in Brownstein's words, "moves toward her inevitable end, death or marriage, along ilnes her body generates."

This "heroine's text" makes the courtship very complicated and presents the journey towards marriage--or seduction--as one filled with obstacles, a minefield. And this is Catherine's experience until we come to the Abbey (I agree with Christopher Reeves that the novel changes radically when we reach the Abbey). The idea of these books is that the aftermath of courtship, marriage doesn't count. We are asked to concur in the idea that an accurate picture of women's life takes us up to the altar and stops there. Her story ends here.

Absurd? No if we ignore the private. Yes if we realize how important the private is. What a silly thing is this concern over whether one is a wallflower. Austen writes about such trivial unimportant things many a reader has said. Does she? Are they?

Austen is using the conventional pattern, but exposing much of the nonsence we are asked to believe in it. Instead of monstrous horrific events, large events of the kind we do find in S&S (adultery, seduction, pregnancy outside marriage, duels, death in sponging-houses and the like) what really counts are an appointment overturned, betrayals that are not so obvious but nonetheless heartbreaking (as in James Morland's engagement to Isabella), lies, the kind of lies people tell all the time (John Thorpe twice to General Tilney). So if we follow Brownstein and Miller Austen is writing her book against a backdrop of hundreds of novels and a false view of life which is still with us (at least in the movies, witness The English Patient which is outrageous romance in its film version), and which she herself wrote a version of first in Elinor and Marianne which was revised more than once into Sense and Sensibility.

Ellen Moody

RE: NA: A Satire As Well as A Novel

Many of the complaints about Catherine we have been having--what a dolt, how can she be such a simpleton, silly Cathy--come from a reading of this text as if it were a realistic novel. It's not. It harks back to the Juvenilia and if critics and scholars are right and the first draft was very early.

I don't think it unhelpful to compare the two Marys of MP and Persuasion with Isabella because Austen has matured to the point that she understands people better than she did when she created Isabella. Austen knows Isabella is not real; she knows she has a monster of a caricature here. General Tilney is also a strong caricature, as is John Thorpe. Austen does not mean us to respond to them as we do to Mary and Henry Crawford or Sir Thomas. She wants strong lines in a satire which is meant to display them in the manner of satire which is comic. We are not to undestand them. There is no quarter given--there is no defense from psychologizing. We are to condemn and laugh or scorn. The novel does not allow us to laugh in this manner of satire, because we are always been asked to understand a human being before us like ourselves. When Catherine ever so innocently says she has always supposed men to dislike novels, we are not to think what an ass she is to have believed this cant which daily experience contradicts. Austen is intent upon the idea which is cant and mocking through her naif. The idea that Catherine's naivete is to be explained away because she is a teenager seems to be to give this novel a depth or emotionalism it never reaches because it's not intended to.

I might point to the style of this book here. I too have many favorite lines in this novel. One is: "I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible." This is a polished book; the style continually calls attention to itself, as the narrator is constantly reminding us that it is a book. There are many such long passages as that Trina pointed out where Austen wants us to sit up and take notice of her as a writer of penetrating ironic "pensees" (in the manner of the French). There are others like Henry's brilliant imagining of Catherine's first night in the Abbey which call for us to sit up and take notice of this book as a brilliant piece of language.

The book also shifts again and again into psychological mode, and we begin to identify with Catherine's consciousness and regard Henry as a real person. I see Austen has having after her Juvenilia set herself the task of trying to keep the parody of false or sentimental novels going while writing a novel the way she thought novels ought to be written. I also see her as coming back to it in 1816 and improving it enormously. This book reads as well as Emma. At times the dialogue is as convincing; it moves swiftly; it sparkles. The turns are deft; the allusions perfect.

Has she succeeded in blending the two modes? Those who think this book Austen's best might say probably. I wouldn't change a word in it. I love books about books; I love satire. I am not uncomfortable when Swift's Gulliver is utterly gullible and inconsistent and then again real. Perhaps another book we might have read before NA was Gulliver's Travels or Candide. We should remember this book comes before the flowering of realism in the 19th century and belongs to a satiric age which was not bothered by a book announcing itself as a book. Really it ought to appeal to a generation which is said to have gone beyond verisimilitude in its plays and novels. Or maybe most of us haven't?

Ellen Moody

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